(Washington, DC) - The Bolivian government should unambiguously repudiate the mob attack on the family of former Vice President Víctor Hugo Cárdenas and refrain from any statements that could be interpreted as condoning such violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the Bolivian government to ensure immediate and impartial investigations into this and other recent attacks on supporters of both the government and the opposition.

On March 7, 2009, hundreds of indigenous peasants reportedly occupied and looted Cárdenas's home in Sankajahuira, approximately 56 miles west of La Paz. The mob beat Cárdenas's wife, children and nephew with sticks and whips, and forced them out of the house. The former vice president, who has been an outspoken critic of the government of President Evo Morales, was not in his house at the time. His wife, Lidia Catari, their daughter, Sami, 15, and son Irumaki, 24, were admitted to a hospital in La Paz later that day for injuries sustained in the attack.

The attacks, including the one on the Cárdenas household on March 7,  come at a time of increasing aggression between pro- and anti-government forces in Bolivia. In May 2008, a mob in Sucre reportedly forced supporters of the government to strip off their clothes and to burn ruling party and indigenous flags. And last December in Santa Cruz, opponents of the government threw a Molotov cocktail at the house of a pro-government assembly member, according to several press accounts, setting the house on fire.

"Those who are responsible for these brutal acts should be held accountable, and high-ranking officials must make clear that under no circumstances are such attacks justified," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

In a news conference, Morales lamented the attack on the Cárdenas family and said the government had played no part in it. However, according to several press sources, Morales went on to say that, "The people do not tolerate or forgive traitors." He added that Cárdenas "has lied about himself, about the government and about the new constitution" and that "these lies cause a reaction." Similarly, after calling for an investigation into the incident in a press interview, Vice President Álvaro García Linera said that "Víctor Hugo Cárdenas should ask himself what harm he might have caused his neighbors for them to condemn him."

Cárdenas, an indigenous political leader who served as the country's vice president from 1993 to 1997, openly campaigned against the new constitution put to a referendum by the Morales government. The new constitution was approved in January.

"At the same time as Bolivia's leaders have distanced themselves from the mob and criticized the violence, their public statements suggest that they think the attacks may have been justified," said Vivanco. "Such ambiguity undermines the rule of law in Bolivia."   

Leaders of the attack on Cárdenas's family told the news media that they acted because Cárdenas "financed the campaign against the new constitution," and because he betrayed his people.

"The government has a responsibility to protect the rights to freedom of expression and association, including through political rallies," Vivanco said. "However, it must also make sure they don't degenerate into mob violence or endanger individuals in any way."